Random jukebox – Sarah Cracknell

I wanted to include The Mutineer here, but the only video has unlistenable sound quality, so instead here’s another track from 2015’s Red Kite:

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Saint Etienne – Good Humor

Saint Etienne‘s fourth album – at least as far as their original canon is concerned – was Good Humor, the American-flavored (ha) and distinctly less electronic comeback that saw their first full-length album release in the UK for over four years.

It opens with the metallic beats and gentle electronic piano of Wood Cabin, very much a love song for hermits, before the sweetly piano-driven introduction to Sylvie. This was an entirely respectable number 12 UK hit a couple of months ahead of the album’s release, but you have to wonder if that didn’t owe a lot to the Trouser Enthusiasts‘ brilliant dance interpretation which led the UK single release. In its album form, it still feels somewhat subdued, but it also would never have hit the charts at all if it hadn’t been quite such a catchy song.

With Saint Etienne, the sweet 1960s style pop is never far away, so Split Screen is a very welcome track that would make a great accompaniment to an English weekend country getaway. Apparently they chose the title Good Humor as a reaction to continually being told they sounded English. Well, I’m sorry, but you still do.

Many of the tracks on this album contain obscure references in their titles, so in case you can’t quite remember which one Mr. Donut is, it’s the one about international travel and duty free. It’s a good song, as is Goodnight Jack, which follows, although it hints slightly at being another epic like Avenue, which is only a slight disappointment when it tails off after four and a half minutes.

Next comes the aborted third single Lose That Girl, intended for release in September 1998 with another Trouser Enthusiasts remix. I think this might be my favourite track on here – it’s definitely one of the catchiest. That this never had the chances to reach the higher ends of the chart is a real shame.

The Bad Photographer did, and didn’t perform particularly well unfortunately. That is a shame – it’s another great pop song, although it’s probably fair to say that it’s not quite as great as Lose That Girl or SylvieBeen So Long and Postman follow, always with the great, catchy 1960s pop.

Erica America has always resonated somewhat with me, having moved to the US a few years ago and having immediately met more than one person called Erica, who of course each immediately earned the same nickname. Sung by an American, this might just work as a convincing US pop song. It would just need a bit more of a country feel and a few more hip hop beats. Maybe a rap, who knows. It’s another great song, anyway.

For me, this was the first album where Saint Etienne really got everything right. Previous albums had been good – some of them had been great – but they had all been a little bit inconsistent in one way or another, whereas Good Humor really just has all the right pop ingredients.

Dutch TV is arguably one of the weaker tracks on here, but not by a lot – the drifting organ and gentle drums complement Sarah Cracknell‘s voice perfectly, and it’s another catchy track. It’s also the closing track, which seems to come much too soon at this point.

If you can find the double CD deluxe edition, go for that one. At the time of writing, I could only see this single CD reissue, which should work perfectly well too.

Saint Etienne – So Tough

Their debut album Foxbase Alpha had made a reasonable dent on the charts in late 1991 thanks to the memorable but minor hit Only Love Can Break Your Heart, and Saint Etienne had started to gain a reputation as one of the more creative forces in popular music. Second album So Tough is a pop concept album about growing up, which is such an unusual thing that it’s definitely worth a listen.

The album takes its name from a late Beach Boys album, Carl and the Passions – “So Tough”, the first track of which also provided the title of the compilation You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone, which followed later the same year.

It opens with Mario’s Cafe, which for those of you like me who can’t place exactly which song that is, it’s the one that goes “When we leave for work / Tuesday morning 10am”. It’s a pleasant pop song with just a hint at the start of the experimental sounds and samples that had stylised their debut album.

This album appeared in 1993, fifteen years ago this week, and by then, Sarah Cracknell had become a fully-fledged member. But there was still space for the pleasant instrumentals that had made up so much of the first release, so Railway Jam is an entirely appropriate inclusion at this point.

There are a few miniature breaks on here, of which Date with Spelman is the first, and then occasional collaborator Q-Tee turns up to rap on Calico, a pleasant but somewhat forgettable foray into hip hop. Then comes the glorious Avenue, released as a seven-minute single in late 1992. This was actually the opening single for this album, which may seem a little surprising until you find yourself a couple of minutes into the track, utterly captivated by it.

Then comes the huge hit single You’re in a Bad Way, which peaked at number 12 just before the album came out. While the single was augmented by samples from Brighton Rock, the album goes for the brilliant “Lose himself in London” quote from Billy Liar. It’s a great song, wonderfully catchy and with a splendid 1960s backing track, although it is just a little disappointing that the album version isn’t quite as good as the single release.

Memo to Pricey carries us through to the adorable Hobart Paving, the adorable suburban piano piece that appeared as half of a double a-side with Who Do You Think You Are as the third single from this album, and performed well on the charts.

This isn’t really Saint Etienne‘s finest work though – Leafhound is pleasant, but it doesn’t exactly go anywhere, and the chord changes seem a bit forced. Clock Milk and Conchita Martinez follow, and while you can absolutely see how they fit in with the narrative of the album, they don’t exactly stand well on their own. So it might come as something of a surprise to learn that this album, buoyed by its great singles, is actually the group’s highest-charting, having peaked at number 7.

There isn’t a huge amount left here, truth be told. No Rainbows for Me is nice, but dull to say the least. Then there’s another interlude track, Here Comes Clown Feet, and the dancey closing piece Junk the Morgue, and the album is rounded out with one last mini-track, Chicken Soup. It’s probably fair to say that things tail off a bit towards the end.

But if you take a bigger picture view, and see So Tough as the second step in Saint Etienne‘s growth as a group, which sees them starting to reach maturity over the next couple of albums, this is a strong step – the three great singles and its chart performance are definitely testament to that. It might not be the best album when you listen to it on its own, but it’s certainly an important album.

If you can, try to track down the double CD deluxe version of So Tough, which appears to still be available at the time of writing.

Bizarre search engine terms – 2018 edition

I don’t often look at the statistics for this blog, but occasionally it tells me one or two interesting facts. One of the more revealing is the search engine terms that bring people here. These are a selection of the ones that brought you here in the last year or so!

b.e.f. ‎– music for stowaways torrent

No. Just no. I say this every time, but if you want illegal music, this is not the right place to look. Stream, buy second hand, or best, buy the original in some form. Most of B.E.F.‘s debut album is available on the 1981-2011 box set.

“stephen hague” produce

A search which has brought people here on an astonishing nine different occasions. Stephen Hague turns up a lot on this blog, of course, and not always by name. Over a four-decade career, he’s been responsible for producing many of our favourite acts around here, including Orchestral Manoeuvres in the DarkPet Shop BoysNew OrderErasureMarc AlmondElectronicBlurDubstarSarah CracknellAfro Celt Sound Systema-haPeter GabrielClientClaudia Brücken and more. A future stowaway hero for sure.

location of the first brit award in 1981 [and 1981 brits awards]

A lot of people seem to come here now looking for information about the BRIT Awards. As you’ll see from this article, the first BRIT Awards was not in 1981 – there wasn’t even a ceremony that year. The first was in 1977, at Wembley Conference Centre. The first regular ceremony was in 1982, at Grosvenor House.

best kraftwerk album to start with

Everyone will have their own opinion on this, but I gave mine when Kraftwerk appeared on the Beginner’s guide feature three years ago. I’d stand by that judgement – start with Trans Europa Express or The Mix. It’s worth paying extra for the German releases.

vangelis aimless noodling

This might be one of my favourite web searches ever. Honestly, yes, a good chunk of Vangelis‘s music is aimless noodling, and rather amusingly it turns out that I actually used those exact words when I reviewed the Metropolis soundtrack in 2014, although at the time I wasn’t referring to the man himself.

If you want more, here’s the 2017 edition.

Saint Etienne – Finisterre

Have you ever been to a Harvester before? Saint Etienne, I suspect, have. One of their most electronic pop works, Finisterre, was first released fifteen years ago this week.

After the brief sound of an amateur football match and the quote I started this piece with, the album opens with first single Action, which is either typically brilliant Saint Etienne or a bit nondescript, depending on your perspective.

Second track Amateur is indisputably great. The huge dance bass line and catchy melody are punctuated beautifully by lyrics like “a piece of Farnborough looking like Tirana”. That’s not the kind of lyric you come across every day.

This album was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a success. The two singles peaked at number 41 and 40 respectively, and the album stalled at number 55. But despite this, it was well received at the time, and I think part of its charm is the vocal interludes from Michael Jayston. The next one talks about “the perverse possibilities of the Barbican,” and you’re reminded of just how firmly the Saint Etienne of this period were rooted in London.

The instrumental Language Lab carries us through to the wonderful second single Soft Like Me, featuring a guest vocal performance by Wildflower. Where the first single might have sounded very familiar, this is quite unique in the group’s catalogue, as Sarah Cracknell‘s crisp vocals accompany Wildflower‘s gentle rhythmic rapping.

Summerisle is a nice gentle interlude, and then Stop and Think it Over takes us back to the more 1960s-sounding pop that characterised the earlier album Good Humor. Then the fantastic Shower Scene, bizarrely released as a Spain-only single at the end of 2002. It’s tempting to wonder why this wasn’t the lead single instead of Action, but if nothing else it’s a nice surprise when you do discover it.

The instrumentals are often among Saint Etienne‘s most interesting moments, and so it is with The Way We Live Now, which for me always evokes memories of the children’s television series How We Used to Live (that’s almost certainly not unintentional either, given the single of that name on the preceding album). It’s not quite instrumental actually, but Sarah’s vocals are more of an accompaniment here than a focus.

New Thing really should have been a single too, with its enormous rippling synth line. It’s catchy, includes some heavily processed vocals, and still sounds very contemporary. Probably. Equally, B92 (the one with the lyric “this is our wall of sound,” in case you had forgotten) is a great semi-experimental piece which takes you back to the group’s 1992 second album So Tough at times.

After all of that, the lo-fi sound of The More You Know does come as a bit of a surprise – and that’s the key thing with this album as it turns out – there’s nothing particularly new, for the most part, but it takes a fascinating journey through the different aspects of Saint Etienne‘s sound. Title track Finisterre is evocative and strange, with a fantastic guest vocal from Sarah Churchill.

Honestly, Finisterre is unlikely to stand out to many when they try to re-evaluate Saint Etienne‘s career. While it’s true that it doesn’t have many catchy hit singles, it’s also one of their most complete, fully thought through albums. Definitely, one of their best. I just wish I knew what the ending was all about…

The newly reissued double CD version of Finisterre should still be widely available from places like this.

Saint Etienne – Continental

Continental isn’t a real album. Not in the sense that anyone thought of it as a studio album when it came out, anyway. Initially released two decades ago this week, but only in Japan, this follow-up to Tiger Bay (1994) compiles highlights from the singles, compilations, and other bits and bobs that appeared during the group’s first wilderness period. But then in 2009, it got a surprise inclusion in Saint Etienne‘s series of deluxe edition albums, so now we get to enjoy it as a real album after all.

It opens with the lovely Shad Thames, a bright and chirpy synth instrumental which hadn’t appeared anywhere prior to this point. If you only know them for their pure pop songs, it might come as a surprise to know that Saint Etienne have a great line in quirky instrumental, sample-based, and also long tracks. It’s a perfect opening track.

Burnt Out Car is next, a fantastic song, and in common with the timeless nature of this album, it did eventually appear as a single, but not until the end of 2009, when it heralded the London Conversations compilation. Here, it’s in its original form which first appeared in 1996 on the Casino Classics collection, mixed by Balearico.

Sometimes in Winter follows, another track that appeared in remixed form on Casino Classics, although this time we get Saint Etienne‘s original take. It’s a sweet slice of 1960s-style pop – the kind of thing the group have a justifiable reputation for being very good at. Then comes Winter Melody, kind of a continuation of the previous track, as it takes elements of Psychonauts‘ remix from the earlier release and stretches them a bit. A slightly odd inclusion, but also very much in line with the rest of this release.

One slightly trippy oddity leads into another, the short drum and bass-inspired Public Information Film, and then comes The Process, which was one of the b-sides of He’s on the Phone, presumably the track that necessitated this compilation in the first place. It’s also the track that comes next, and it’s a difficult one not to love. It’s a Motiv8 production, and his mixes do have a tendency to sound pretty much exactly the same as one another, but this one is pretty much as good as they ever got. You’ll find it very difficult not to sing along.

Side B opens with Stormtrooper in Drag, the cover version which originally appeared a few months earlier on the Gary Numan tribute compilation Random. It takes a lot of inspiration from He’s on the Phone too, with a pulsating mid-1990s synth line in the background and occasional rippling piano, and honestly once you accept that it’s a little bit dated now, it’s pretty great too.

Then things go unexpectedly glam with Star, the first of two tracks here on which singer Sarah Cracknell shares a writing credit with Ian Catt, so it’s probably safe to assume that this grew out of her solo album sessions and then maybe gained a bit of Saint Etienne production along the way. Good, but not really up to the standard of most of the other things on here.

The next pair of tracks consists on Down by the Sea and The Sea, which are pretty much two parts of the same song again. The latter appeared on Casino Classics with a lovely spacious, maritime-flavoured drum and bass remix from PFM, whereas the former is a full, although slightly avant garde, song. Together, they make up around ten minutes of music, a fifth of the entire release.

After several minutes of frantic drumming, we’re left with Lonesome, the second Ian Catt collaboration, and closing track Angel. It’s a slightly alarming change of pace, as Lonesome is largely acoustic pop, but it’s rather pleasant. Then Angel is the Broadcast remix which had appeared already on Casino Classics, which is nice, and very ethereal, but definitely not quite as good as Way Out West‘s version which appeared on the same release.

So Continental may or may not be a real album, and it’s definitely a slightly odd mix of tracks, but it’s also rather good, and is definitely worthy of its insertion into Saint Etienne‘s back catalogue.

The double-disc version of Continental gets a reissue of its own in just a few days, and comes with a bonus disc of early and alternative versions from the period. It will be available here.